Not quite a ribbon rant

Jon just pointed out something I had totally missed. I have always disliked the ribbon because it is so unproductive for most of the 440 million users of pre-2007 versions of Excel. That makes it a major adoption blocker preventing people leveraging the great new Excel features, and fragmenting the market for consultants like some of us.

But as Jon points out (and I hadn’t registered) the ribbon did not come for free. Members of the Excel team were transferred to the User Experience space station to drink kool aid with the astronauts (UEA’s). I can imagine it now:

UEA: I think this effluent UI should be 900 pixels deep so our beginner users can find the commands they need.

Excel guy: Hmm – great suggestion, lets put that on the todo list, for now what about leaving our users some space for their spreadsheets?

UEA: oh, OK. We’ll just steal 1/3 of the screen in 2007, and see if we can get more in Office 14.

Whilst these Excel team resources were wasting time re-inventing the wheel at the UEA space station they weren’t adding your favourite feature. (something tells me the Excel guys were trying to pull the UEAs back down to earth – I shudder to think where we would be now if it weren’t for their efforts!) (Developing in Open Office Calc probably)

So here is a question – which feature(s) would you rather have had in 2007 instead of that pointless waste of space the ribbon?

Don’t feel bad if you think the ribbon is absolutely the best use of those many developer years of effort. Somebody senior at MS must think that way too.

Me I wish they had made off-sheet precedents and dependants properly accessible in VBA. Or improved the .net integration story. Or provided performant User defined functions. (Or made it calc(/present) 850 * 77.1 correctly?). Or updated the VBAIDE.

Or made the toolbar buttons smaller so I can get more useful features in a smaller space. Why would you have buttons bigger than cells? If users can’t hit a normal button, would you want them calculating business critical numbers?

“I’ll just put this 200 billion revenue in C6 – Revenue – ooops its went in D7 – discounts. Not to worry, at least I can hit the ginormous style button to make it all look nice – wrong, but nice – cewl. Accurate, smaccurate – look at the styyyyle.”

If you had x dev years of effort to invest in Excel, where would you invest?



11 Responses to “Not quite a ribbon rant”

  1. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    Since the Excel team has had enough time to create 3 new file formats : SpreadsheetML, BIFF11+ and BIFF12, I don’t think the ribbon is a good excuse for why important features were not implemented.
    It also fails to see that Excel is now targeted to servers (Excel services) and to address a chunk of the BI world (new alerters).
    When you are cynical, you find Excel’s strategy extremely coherent.

  2. gobansaor Says:

    I’d invest in new user-focused replacement for VBA based on the ideas being developed at MIT’s Scratch project

    I was watching my 11 year son build a game in Scratch last night, he’s programming but he’s not aware of it, to him it’s simply a great tool for getting things done (in this case games and animation) and it’s fun. Highly recommended.


  3. Rob Bruce Says:

    I get the feeling that Microsoft expects all business number crunching to happen on servers now. Desktop Excel is more and more a presentational tool to be used to do apply fancy styles after doing a few simple calculations to tidy up the data.

    This may be an acceptable pattern for large enterprises, but the kind of SMEs that I deal with (i.e. no IT dept., no data warehousing strategy, sometimes not even a dedicated server on their network at all) really don’t want or need to go down that road. Where are /their/ sophisticated business models going to go I wonder, particularly if desktop Excel is now being deliberately designed to alienate the developer and/or power user?

  4. Simon Says:

    Good point Rob – Thats what I can’t get my head around. Why the ribbon (for beginners) and multi-threaded calc (for ‘power’ user models) in the same product?
    Ah! unless the power features were for Excel services and then lobbed in the client as an after-thought?

  5. Jon Peltier Says:

    Tom –

    Interesting, but if there are no resources for even minimal VBIDE work, there will not be the resources required to develop the much more extensively abstracted IDE that an approach like Scratch is immersed within. Each of those program building blocks is similar in programmer envolvement to adding a control to a userform, but it is automatically sequenced into program flow and its program segments integrated with the objects on screen.

    Rob –

    If these SMEs have the sophistication to at least test a new platform before upgrading, I don’t think many will advance beyond 2000/2003. To put Excel on the server sounds like a great idea, but you must invest in one or more other Microsoft servers (at least Sharepoint), and this means you need an IT department to maintain it. Over and above desktop design issues.

  6. Harlan Grove Says:

    Top of my list would be gutting and rewriting the parts of the object model that prevent opening multiple files with the same base filename at the same time in the same Excel session. This prevents side-by-side comparisons of files in particular directory structures in which corresponding files in their respective structures have identical layouts. AFAIK, Excel is the only Windows application capable of opening multiple document windows within a single application window that can’t handle opening files from multiple directories all of which having the same base filename. This one is REALLY ANNOYING!

    As for the ribbon, they did it to differentiate themselves from the competition. The old Lotus Development Corp look-and-feel lawsuits are still the law of the land in the US, Microsoft is unlikely to license Effluent to any direct Office competitors, and it’s blatantly obvious that the ribbon is NOT the only way to express menu-like functionality in a GUI application. Thus no competitor could just copy Effluent without the risk of being sued by Microsoft and almost certainly losing in US courts.

    That said, most USERS are creatures of habit. Once they get used to the ribbon, they won’t want to use classic menus and toolbars, even if there are other applications in which they use menus and toolbars. Net result for Microsoft: customer lock-in.

  7. Dennis Wallentin Says:

    Office UI Licensing:

    Most third part vendors (.NET/Web) now offer Ribbon UI in/with their products. So it looks like it’s already is a standard. Let’s see when the vendors of business system etc will implement it as well.

    By viewing Excel as end users presentation layers it can be claimed that the Ribbon UI support this task well. The rapid develop of server-side solutions (i e generate reports with VSTO and Excel Services that can be “customized” by end users) also leverage the possibilities to multithreading and the use of several CPUs.

    In general I believe we all need to understand that the individual desktop is no longer the main target enviroment for new MSFT Office stuff.

    Kind regards,

  8. Dennis Wallentin Says:

    Where did my previously post go? It looks like that when I’m logged in to my WordPress account the comments go straight here while to the trash when I’m not logged in…

  9. Simon Says:

    Dennis some of mine have gone straight in the spam bin too, I wonder if it is a no-script ff issue?

  10. Dennis Wallentin Says:

    OK- thanks and it’s good to get it confirmed. I will see how I can report it to WP.

  11. sam Says:

    “which feature(s) would you rather have had in 2007”

    Simon – MS just have to look at their own KB site and do a search for “known issues” to get a list….If they had spent the 4 years b/w 03 to 07 just fixing them and had released an SPx for 2003 the 430 m users would have had a great product to use….

    “…Somebody senior at MS must think that way too.”

    Remember the alleged question by Bill G to the Lead

    Bill G : “There will be a Classic view option right ? ”

    UEA’s: (Chorus) “No”

    Bill G : “But…what about ..”

    Lead UEA (interrupting) : “Look at this glassy blue 3D pie Chart from our market survey team….it says that 98% of all users have not more than 2 toolbars visible….and 90% of these 98% have both on them in a single row…what gross under utilistation of screen space…but with our new office fattened ui…this problem is take care for good…”

    Bill G : “But what would be our $ale$ strategy…”

    Head MBA : “First we share the “good news” via several blogs 12 months pior to release…this would improve our image on the transparecy front..just like our charts…then we offer free trials as usual…we also offer browser based tryouts…and after a years time if $ale$ are still low….we go in for a forced upgrade….”

    Bill G : “…”WOW” “

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